Dilemmas of a first-time manager – People or Product Manager

Although I am writing this article with my experience only in the technology industry, I would believe this holds true for other industries as well. In either case, I would love to learn your views, so please feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section below. 

If you are not growing, you are dying! Somehow from the very beginning of my career, I was scared of reporting to a first-time manager. I always felt that the first-time managers were micro-managers, insecure, took credit for the work of their team, had zero trust in the team and inhibited growth. As I moved through different roles in the industry and eventually became a manager myself, I realized this behavior was very common. And the key reason for it was the sense of lack of control.

When I started my career as a Software Engineer, I had full control over my output. I knew what I was coding, and knew the quality of my code from the code reviews. In other words, I controlled my review results. When I moved to Program Management, I didn’t need to code, but my review was controlled by how I worked with others, and how much work I can get accomplished through others. I remember the first few months of the role, I loved my new role, enjoying speaking with the customers and partners of the product, working with engineering teams and prioritizing their workload. It was all that I ever wanted, but deep inside me, there was a fear of not having coded in x number of days. There was a fear inside me that what if I lose my technical chops? Will I become less relevant in the industry? Will it be hard for me to find the next job? The same thing happened when I was promoted to a manager role. As a manager, I wasn’t doing the things that I did as an Individual Contributor, and I am focusing more on people management. Did that mean I am losing touch with my craft?

The thing that we don’t realize, as first-time managers, is that being an individual contributor and being a people manager are two different skills. Being good at individual contributor doesn’t mean that you will automatically good at people management skills, and vice versa. To be successful on the career path you have chosen, you have to work on those skills. What got you here, won’t get you there. You have to learn new skills and this process is called “growth.”

We all want to be relevant and important in the field of work we do. However, being in the management position means that you are not doing the work yourself. You are relying on others to do the work. You have to trust them that they will finish the work in the desired time and if there is anything wrong they will let you know ahead of time. Having said that, mistakes do happen, and sometimes these mistakes cannot be anticipated in advance for proper communication to happen. When a person is promoted to a manager position, without any knowledge of the field, it causes havoc. First, he/she is learning to trust others, and second, he doesn’t know whether the reason for failure, that people are telling him, is genuine or an excuse. A manager needs to be knowledgeable about the work his/her team is doing, but the more important than that is trusting the team. If I look back at my career, the best managers I have had were the managers who trusted me the most. They provided me the air cover that if anything wrong happens, they will not run me under the bus. Some of them were knowledgeable of the work I was doing to the extent that they could perform all the work themselves, if needed, while many knew the details of my work at a high-level. It’s didn’t matter much until they trusted me.

I must admit, building trust is not easy. It takes a long time to build it and a few seconds to break it. Building trust in any relationship requires open communication, and it is the same in this case. As first-time managers, one needs to work hard to understand the communication styles of various members of the team and openly share his  communication style with the team to reduce the chances of miscommunications.

Lastly, being a manager and having a team to do the work doesn’t mean you don’t get to do anything or your sole responsibility is to manage people. The role of a manager comes with great responsibility. Use this as an opportunity to do bigger impact work that you couldn’t do before. Invest your time in building the vision and strategies to grow your team in the ways you didn’t have the bandwidth to do before. Keep learning. If you are not uncomfortable, you are not growing. If you are not growing, you are dying.

To summarize, as a new manager prioritize the skills you focus on, learn new skills, build trust with the team, and use this as an opportunity to grow beyond your limits.

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A geek, a techie, a daughter, a sister and a wife. Worked at Microsoft for 8 years and currently working at Amazon Web Services (AWS). All opinions expressed here are my own and has no correlation to my employer or ex-employers!

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